April 2, 2008

Plan calls for killing ravens to save desert tortoise

The Press-Enterprise

Ravens caught preying on desert tortoises will be killed under a plan announced Wednesday by federal wildlife officials seeking to protect the reptiles threatened with extinction.

The program will start in spring 2009 throughout the California desert, including Riverside and San Bernardino counties, where the number of ravens increased in some areas by more than 700 percent between 1969 and 2004.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service considered comments by animal advocacy groups to use only non-lethal methods, but that would take too long to have an effect, said Judy Hohman, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Under the plan, federal wildlife officials will kill only ravens that appear to be preying on the threatened desert tortoises.

"We need to stop the decline of the desert tortoise population as soon as possible," Hohman said.

She said the plan incorporates non-lethal means, including efforts to educate the public in the Coachella Valley and other desert towns to place trash in covered garbage bins and not to over-irrigate lawns so that pools of water can be used by ravens for drinking.

Monica Engebretson, senior program associate with Born Free USA united with Animal Protection Institute, based in Sacramento, said she hoped the program would have included methods to prevent raven eggs from hatching and efforts to pass ordinances that would fine residents for not properly taking care of their garbage or lawns so that the effort is taken seriously.

The wildlife service crafted the plan with the National Park Service, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and military bases in the desert.

Under the plan, a two-person crew from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's wildlife service will scour parts of the desert when tortoises are most active, from about early March through early June, Hohman said.

They will kill only ravens that appear to be preying on tortoises by shooting them, poisoning them or trapping and then euthanizing them. The poison that will be used is non-lethal to most other birds and wildlife, Hohman said. It will be injected into a hard-boiled egg and hoisted on a pole so it will be out of reach of other wildlife.

If that approach is unsuccessful, the crew will target all ravens in wildlife management areas and land considered critical to the tortoise's survival.

The program calls for killing a maximum of 200 ravens each year and will cost $200,000 annually, Hohman said.